Squire Patton Boggs, a law firm, explains what the Environment Act means for airquality.
The Environment Bill, the UK’s new flagship law in environmental governance and regulation post-Brexit received royal assent on 9 November and became the Environment Act 2021.
It has been a long process since the Bill was introduced back in January 2020. There have been many hotly discussed issues along the route, not least those relating to air quality. The House of Commons and House of Lords debated a number of provisions right up to the end. So what are the final provisions of Act in relation air quality?
Part 4 of the Act and the associated Schedules 11 & 12 are dedicated to air quality. However, the most prominent air quality provisions are found in Chapter 1 of Part 1 on setting targets.
Quality targets for the air
Campaigners made many demands, and amendments were proposed by the House of Lords to the Act to include a target for reducing fine particulate matter (PM2.5), to align with (or exceed) the World Health Organisation target. The government repeatedly resisted this request and the Act does not contain a firm target.
The Act gives the Secretary of State the power to set long-term air quality (and environmental) targets. At least one long-term goal must be set in relation air quality, as well as in three other priority areas. The Secretary of State is required to set a shorter-term legally binding goal to reduce PM2.5 in ambient. The Act requires the government’s submission of draft regulations to Parliament by 31 Oct 2022. They must include at least two air-quality targets, one for PM2.5 and one for long-term.
Other air quality measures
Part 4 (and Schedules 11 & 12) of the Act contains additional provisions relating to airquality. These provisions can be broken down into four main areas.
Schedule 11 modifies and supplements the Environment Act 1995’s air quality provisions. It requires the Secretary of state to review the air-quality strategy at least five times per year and to report annually to Parliament on progress towards England’s air-quality objectives. It also strengthens local air quality management framework (LAQM). This is to enable greater cooperation at local levels and expand the range of organizations that play a role improving local airquality.
Local air pollution management will now fall to the respective relevant public authorities, all tiers and neighboring authorities. LAQM has been updated to include requirements for action plans in cases where local air is not meeting air quality standards.
Schedule 12 amends 1993 Clean Air Act to allow local authorities financial penalties for smoke control areas. This seems to be directly aimed at reducing PM2.5 omissions, as domestic stoves/fires have been shown to contribute significantly to PM2.5 levels. The current criminal offense of emitting smoke from chimneys in smoke control areas is being replaced by a civil penalty regime. This should allow for a faster and simpler enforcement of emissions of smoke in these areas.
Existing offences related to the sale of solid fuels in smoke-control areas are also being increased by removing the financial limit and requiring retailers that they notify customers that it’s illegal to buy unapproved fuel to use in a smoking control area, unless it will actually be burned in an approved device.
Schedule 12 amends the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in order to remove an exemption. This means that smoke from a dwelling within a smoke control zone could be considered a statutory nuisance. In future, smoke from chimneys within a smoke control area may be subject to a notice from the local authority. A violation of this notice is a criminal offense.
The Act’s Part 4 gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations for recalls of relevant products, such as engines and vehicles, if they fail to meet environmental standards. This would include standards for air emissions. These regulations could force distributors and manufacturers to recall products. They may also require a minimum number of products to be returned.
The Act is a framework. In order to implement many of these initiatives, it requires and relies on secondary legislation. Many of these initiatives have no timetable. However, there is a commitment that legislation establishing air quality targets must be in place by October 2022. The date for the appointment of Part 4 to amend existing legislation in relation air quality is yet to be determined. Only the provisions concerning the new Office for Environmental Protection have yet been implemented. We will continue to monitor when these provisions will be in effect.